More Fun With New Atheists…

More astonishingly unintentional new atheist humour comes from the biologist Jerry Coyne. Coyne is known for reviewing books he has not read and now attacks a conference that has yet to take place. Not only is Coyne’s hostile judgement based on the conference blurb – and, thus, potentially valid but superficial assumptions – it is based on a preposterous misreading. He quotes the blurb, from the conference “Beyond Reductionism”, as asking…

…can science itself fall prey to the same kinds of emotional pitfalls, fallacies, and even fanaticism we more often associate with religious literalists and fundamentalists?

…and then suggesting…

given the capacity of every human being to be swayed by emotions and appearances in contrast to hard evidence, would it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking?

This is, any fair minded person would conclude, a call for sceptics of religion to be as sceptical of scientific truth claims as religious ones. Coyne is not a fair minded man. He somehow thinks that it implies that religious claims are more valid than scientific claims. He huffs…

…it’s incredibly insulting to science and rationality for these authors to suggest, with their faux naiveté, that science and reason need to adhere to the same (presumably more rigorous) standards used by religions to adjudicate their truth claims. Let me give you some news, Drs. Koepsell, Stein, and Abbot: religion has NO rigor in its truth claims, but an emotional commitment to deities and their will that lack any supporting evidence. It is science that has the hard standards, and religion that should adhere to the standards of science when adjudicating its claims.

First, how the hell does Coyne know that Koepsell, Stein and Abbot authored this blurb? Even ignoring his lamentable misinterpretation it is, yes, incredibly insulting for him to abuse them for authoring words they might have had nothing to do with. Second, this is, yes, a lamentable misinterpretation, and Coyne’s resultant invective is incredibly insulting to the author of blurb. Third, this condescending snark about religious belief is incredibly insulting to religious believers. The rigor of Augustine, Aquinas, Al-Ghazali, Leibniz et cetera can be questioned but the idea that they were only expressing “an emotional commitment to deities” is incredibly insulting to the intelligence.

In the comments, Coyne was nudged into realising that he had misread the blurb, and promised to “fix the text a bit”. The paragraph I suspect he added reads…

Now it’s possible that the “we” in the bit above means “rationalists and skeptics” rather than “all people, including believers.” If that’s the case, though, and the workshop is asking us to apply uniform standards of skepticism to all empirical claims, then my response is this: WE ALREADY DO! So what’s the point of this workshop?

It is not just possible, it is hugely probable. As for his exasperated howl of “WE ALREADY DO”: that is, no doubt, what the conference will question. For sure, it might be a parade of fallacies, but the fact that Coyne is unwilling to even accept that it’s possible that science could be damaged by science or fanaticism is, ironically, a case of fanatical bias.

I’m not sure what it will take for some atheists to accept that they indulge unreasonable patterns of thought but hunting for heretics is not exactly subtle.


About bsixsmith

I am a writer of stories and poems - published by Every Day Fiction, The London Journal of Fiction, 365 Tomorrows and Det Poetiske Bureau - and a columnist for Quillette, Areo and Bombs & Dollars.
This entry was posted in Rationalism, Religion, Scepticism, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to More Fun With New Atheists…

  1. Whyaxye says:

    Excellent post. I take your point that if we apply the same standards to Coyne himself, it is he who is “incredibly insulting”. But his initial use of the term in this context is quite revealing. All that has happened is that some people plan to look at whether a huge and notoriously disparate area of human endeavour is prone to some psychological tendencies which might be thought undesirable. He thinks that this is “incredibly insulting”. Personally, I would reserve those words for situations such as deliberately and gratuitously slanderous attacks on me or my loved ones by those who I hitherto trusted. What sort of rage is Coyne carrying around, that he is seeking this stuff out? Why can’t he just ignore it? “Where can I find some religious types who look as if they are going to nudge my hair trigger?”


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